In February, Priya Ramani’s acquittal in a criminal defamation suit filed by former Union Minister and journalist MJ Akbar was hailed as a victory for India’s #MeToo movement. The verdict pronounced by a metropolitan court in Delhi not only upheld Ramani’s right to call out the sexual harassment she had faced, but also provided other women “a glimmer of hope” to muster the courage and speak up.
Clearly, Akbar’s “male ego” couldn’t take the decision lying down. Yet again, he decided to display his male entitlement “loud and proud”, and filed an appeal in the Delhi High Court against Ramani’s acquittal. At the outset, it might seem like a simple legal battle, but there’s much more to it than meets the eye.
That’s exactly why victims of sexual abuse refrain from ‘outing a predator’, especially those men who hold positions of power. The practice of patriarchal protectionism in Indian society has kept most women away from legal recourse. Moreover, the long and arduous cycle of “shame” inflicted upon by male entitlement and privilege is a clear example of intimidation and suppressing women’s agency. Almost always, the woman stands in the dock, while the accused continues to walk scot-free.
And yet again, Akbar has proved it right.
Victim blaming: Common ploy used by sexual offenders
Earlier, when Ramani came out as a victim of sexual harassment, Akbar abused his masculine privilege and brought her to court, alleging that she was trying to “defame” him and harm his reputation. Fortunately, her acquittal stands as a “big victory” for women, who go through the igominy of sexual harassment in a silent manner, or are silenced when they decide to speak up.
Yet, we cannot turn a blind eye to the fact that her testimony should not have required “legal validation.”
When Ramani spoke out for the first time in 2017, she had not revealed Akbar’s identity. She later called him out publicly when the #MeToo movement was at its peak in the country. This revelation, that led Akbar to resign from his ministerial position, hit his ego hard, very hard.
As a man in a position of power, it was difficult for him to accept a woman taking him head on. And so, he retaliated by filing a case of criminal defamation against Ramani. Clearly, he decided to “shift the blame” on the victim, instead of owning up to the alleged sexual misconduct. Of course, that would have deflated his male ego and ruffled his masculine feathers.
The burden of the blame fell on Ramani’s shoulders, who shifted gears from being a survivor to an “accused”, and had to prove her “innocence” in court.
Is it easy to break the edifice of male privilege?
Well, the answer is a big NO. That’s because Ramani could have easily lost the battle, had she not received support from her lawyer Rebecca John and other women, who chose to speak up against Akbar’s repeated history of sexual harassment. If not, she would have been in a similar position like screenwriter Vinta Nanda who had alleged rape by Bollywood’s self-proclaimed sanskari Alok Nath.
Nanda’s searing account of rape in 2018 angered Nath, who then conveniently decided to file a defamatory suit, giving him a free pass to torment his victim, now legally. In January 2019, the sessions court ruled that the rape case against Nath was a case of “personal vendetta.”
Similarly, Bollywood actor Tanushree Dutta faced repercussions when she called out veteran actor Nana Patekar. Her allegations took the industry by storm, and yet Patekar was given a clean chit in the sexual harassment case.
Unsurprisingly, there have been many more cases when men in positions of power have worn their “masculinity” as a badge of honour. It was evident even in the case of RK Pachauri, former chief of The Energy and Resources Institute (TERI), who was called out for alleged sexual misconduct by a female research associate in the same organisation. Tortured and tormented, the survivor had to quit the organisation. Pachauri, the accused, continued to stay, until an uproar across the country cost him his position.
And if that’s not all, Pachauri presented himself as the “victim”, emphasising on the fact that he was the one who went through all the mental duress.
Former Chief Justice of India, Ranjan Gogoi’s case is no different. In February 2021, the Supreme Court closed the suo moto case that was registered in 2019 against him on account of alleged sexual harassment charges. It was closed after the bench said that “two years have passed and possibility of recovery of electronic evidence now is unlikely”.
All this while, the victim was shamed, and her character tainted, even as Gogoi continued to enjoy his male privilege.
A common thread binds all these cases – powerful males using criminal and civil defamation suits to silence the women who had called out their nefarious conduct. What really needs to be understood is that victimisation or intimidation is also a form of harassment, and must be deemed an offence in the eyes of the law.
Long fight for justice
What all these sexual harassment cases indicate is that identifying a man in power is not easy. Women’s outcry for help is often silenced by a society steeped in patriarchy and misogyny. To break these patterns, and bring about a change is going to take time, a lot of time. For Ramani and other women, it was #MeToo that gave them the courage to call out their tormentors. And yet, it wasn’t easy.
In India, men are placed on a pedestal; they are deemed as ‘financial caregivers’, whereas women are relegated to domestic responsibilities. As times are changing, women are stepping out and smashing generations of patriarchy by becoming financially independent, and owning their voice. This, of course, doesn’t seem to go down well with entitled men, who have more often than not, used their power to intimidate women.
Akbar’s appeal against Ramani’s acquittal might be disturbing and distasteful; yet it is impossible to disregard her strength for fighting the good fight. Her victory has served as “beacon of hope” for so many women, so much so that it feels nothing short of a revolution. It finally makes us believe that toxic male entitlement is being demolished, one small step at a time. There’s a long way to go, but the journey to victory has already begun.
(Edited by Amrita Ghosh)